The CWO Forum Panel on “Caring for the Elderly” took place in a Committee Room of the House of Commons on Tuesday 31st January 2012.
The speakers for the evening were:
Margot James MP
Esther Rantzen CBE
Cllr Lady Flight
Dianne Jeffrey, Chairman of Age UK.
CWO Chairman, Niki Molnar, welcomed everyone on behalf of the CWO and explained to those attending that the Forums were established to give women the opportunity to debate topical subjects and challenging issues that affect them and their families every day.
Diane Jeffrey introduced the topic and explained her role as Chairman of Age UK and the relevance of the Forum with tomorrow’s publication of the Care in Crisis report. She discussed the current challenges that older people face in the UK. Life expectancy is increasing with the population of over sixties set to rise by 50% in the next 25 years. The country’s ageing population raises questions about how to care for the elderly and concerns about future burdens on society and the state. Diane argued that the elderly should be celebrated and supported in later life. She said that the current care system was in crisis, where people need help but are being failed by the system. For example, many people are being forced to sell their homes and assets to pay the costs of care.
The current system is too complex, underfunded and in need of urgent reform. She cited three main issues with the system at present: lack of support; failure to plan for long-term care needs; and underfunding. She described how many people were unaware that social care was not provided free like the NHS and that instead it was means-tested within strict guidelines. Anyone who owns assets worth more than £23,250 has to pay for their own residential care including accommodation and food. As a result, many people were being forced to sell their homes to afford their payments especially as many private sector insurance companies will not insure personal care needs. In 2012, 18% of councils had raised their eligibility criteria to substantial or critical which means that many older people were no longer meeting the new standard.
Age UK was also concerned about what she termed the ‘glass of water placed out of reach’ syndrome and a lack of concern by staff regarding patient dignity. She concluded by arguing that the central challenge facing the care for the elderly was a lack of funding. The current cuts in social care of 4.5%, equivalent to £331 million, was directly impacting on frontline services. An urgent reform of social care was needed now in order to deal with the growing, long-term problems of the UK’s ageing population.
Cllr Lady Flight spoke of her role as the champion for older people in Westminster, with CONTACT group and as Editor of Westminster Plus. Four years ago, Christabel raised the idea of an ‘Older People’s Day’ as a UN day on Wednesday 1st October every year. She would like to resurrect this idea to have a specific day in the calendar to celebrate older people.
Popular culture impacts on our everyday life in numerous ways. She argued that we should feed narratives into television and radio such as the ‘Archers’ and ‘Eastenders’ which can depict issues with life far better than politicians. A recent example was a storyline focused on dementia on the Archers which resulted in a huge amount of publicity and considerably raised the profile of dementia as a direct result of the programme. Several ideas of how to celebrate ‘Silver Sunday’ and ‘Older People’s Day’ were discussed. A central concern was the invisibility of older people. She suggested that everybody was asked to find an older person such as a neighbour and to bring that person back into society so they were less lonely.
Through her role with Westminster Plus, she has seen the importance of getting older people together such as with their annual tea dance for nearly 1000 older people. If we could replicate events such as this across the country, then we could successfully engage older people. Her central message was that older people need to feel that they are visible and that ‘Silver Sunday’ would be a good way to recognise them.
Esther Rantzen CBE spoke of her experiences as the President of ChildLine and the work she is currently doing to support older people. She agreed with Age UK that there was a problem with the current system and the ‘glass of water out of reach’ syndrome. However,
it is not simply a case of underfunding but one of attitude. ‘Silver Sunday’ was an idea she supported but asked the audience how they would define old age. Arbitrary age brackets, such as 60 plus, were perhaps no longer helpful. Esther said that she believed the central problem facing older people was that they were increasingly isolated and lonely.
Recently she wrote an article in the Daily Mail on loneliness and was overwhelmed by the response she had. Many people ranging from children to widows wrote to her. Problems that they brought to her attention included the challenges that disabled people faced in isolated rural communities where it was possible to be alone for weeks at a time. She quoted from one letter where one elderly correspondent wrote that the public “shun us like empty restaurants”. Another issue raised was how many older people did not want to become a burden on their children or families.
Esther announced that tomorrow she would be launching Silverline which was to be a telephone advice and help service for the over fifty-fives. Her experience with Childline had shown that having a number that anyone could ring with no agenda was essential. The helpline will take the time to listen to the concerns of older people and to discuss any issues they may have. For example, there are instances of abuse by carers where it is very difficult for people to ask for help. Having a national resource which provided information and would signpost problems would therefore be of great use. Another purpose of the helpline was to become a resource, providing information on local agencies and opportunities for older people in their area. She concluded by arguing that, if we help each other, then we can change attitudes and make our society more inclusive of older people.
Finally Margot James MP spoke on her role as Vice Chairman for Women in the Conservative Party and her role in the Women’s Policy Group. Her previous experience as a Councillor in Kensington and Chelsea and her work with the NHS Trust meant she had worked with several branches of Age UK. In her constituency of Stourbridge there are two day centres which are open 364 days a year and provide a vital break from loneliness for older people. Margot discussed the legislative challenges facing elderly care and the Government White Paper expected before Easter. She acknowledged that legal reforms of the current system were needed and that there were funding challenges. Her experiences dealing with residential and home care in Kensington were used as examples of the current problems with the system. In 2005, half of councils funded home care for people with moderate needs. However, now less than 20% of councils do the same. Several good residential homes had been closed as they no longer met the stringent new regulations, such as not having the requisite on-site facilities. Home care has been contracted out to private health care providers who offer cheaper services. The private sector was doing a good job but the problem is with local councils who are cutting funding to care services. Margot pointed out that the population of over 55’s was increasing and that NHS funding had been increased by 27% so more funding should be available for adult social care. She suggested that the solution could be to raise the threshold for which elderly people pay for care, perhaps to a capped amount of £100,000. The current £23,000 threshold was far too low and residential care in London is particularly expensive. Residential care homes were important and provided a sense of community to individuals living alone. The challenge is one for the NHS which had to make £20 billion in savings over five years under the last Labour Government. The new Health Bill aims to integrate health and social care and increase the power of local authorities.
Questions and comments from the floor explored issues such as perceived bias by GPs and doctors against elderly patients, how to define elderly and the eligibility criteria for admittance to care homes. A member of the audience raised the Dilnot Report and asked whether care for the elderly was not a matter for society and that we needed to ensure the next generation understood social responsibility. Several members of the audience also asked about resources in rural areas and what Age UK was doing for people in inaccessible areas who were frequently neglected. Each of the speakers summed up their final comments and the Chairman thanked them for contributing to such a fascinating panel discussion.
With thanks to Sophie Stratton, Director of Forums and Theodora Clarke, Director of Communications.
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